Reflections: should the underground check the way it shames DJs?

DJ shaming – the modern day pillory?

How should an underground community built on tolerance respond to a moral scandal? Katia Mullova argues that we should put our pitchforks and rotten fruit down and show a level of decorum that fits the crime, while also acknowledging human frailties.

Another day, another DJ. The latest to bite the ethical dust is Cedric Woo (aka Cedric Lassonde), co-founder of London’s Beauty and the Beat parties. Earlier this month he allegedly shoplifted a $75 disco record from Brooklyn’s Northern Lights Records, a feat that was subsequently captured on the store’s camera and posted on Instagram. It wasn’t long before the underground music scene were sharing their two cents. Comments on the “Woo-ha” (as coined by one YouTuber) ranged from remarking the record wasn’t worth it, to simply reiterating what has become blasé in 2019: Cedric Woo is cancelled.

As today’s nightlife circles would have it, the idea of ‘cancelling’ a person has lost its ironic resonance. Now artists are routinely swiped left for their blunders, along with their artistic legitimacy; the sentence for misdemeanour is swift and the jury is the Twittersphere. Fans despair over the character assassinations of their favourite DJs. Some will hesitate to book them or play their records. Others, dampened by the muckraking zeitgeist, wonder if there are any decent characters left out there.

Lassonde’s misstep is somewhat atypical in the context of other ‘cancelled’ DJs, who have repeatedly been called out for socio-political offence. Prominent examples from the last five years include: a homophobic Facebook status from Ten Walls; sexist comments from Giegling co-founder Konstantin; and, more recently, a wildly offensive album cover from Vakula depicting four eminent female DJs at the helm of a penis-shaped spaceship. There’s no denying that Lassonde’s theft was also wrong, but the long-term ramifications of stealing a sought-after record  seem a far cry from those of unapologetic bigotry. Still, the Internet isn’t known for being judicious. Shortly after the comments began flooding in, the DJ disabled all of his social media platforms. What initially appeared like running from responsibility soon turned into a pre-emptive act of self-preservation when seen in the context of the physical threats popping up in the comments of the incriminating video.

One of the few users to question the record store’s approach was Jason Spinks, owner of Kristina Records in North London. Spinks concedes that “like a lot of people, it made me pretty pissed off that someone would so brazenly steal from a small record shop, especially someone in Cedric’s position.” At the same time, he doesn’t fully agree with the way Northern Lights Records handled the situation, suggesting the video poured fuel on an incident that could have been handled more discreetly. The store insists the video had been posted to warn other record stores in the area, and has since removed it from their platforms.  

When asked for his take on these kinds of occurrences more generally, Spinks recounts an earlier era of the record business when shoplifters would “get banned from the shop for a period of time with their mug shots on the wall … but then over time they’d worm their way back in”, describing how “as long as you kept an eye on them they wouldn’t steal anything and would spend money in the shop.” Spinks’ experience doesn’t change the fact that theft is wrong, but it does highlight the way the industry has lost its laissez-faire outlook. “I’d certainly say we’re less forgiving and much more entitled and opinionated”, Spinks notes.

Whether your view on social media take-downs lands in the ‘witch hunt’ or ‘comeuppance’ pile, it’s plain to see how much the Internet has become a part of this change and why Lassonde ducked off the radar as soon as possible. To list one example, Konstantin’s shaming was sealed by a public petition, signed by over 2000 music industry figures, insisting that ADE festival drop him from their 2018 lineup. ADE didn’t comply in the end, but the petition was reminiscent of public protests against leaders like Marie Le Pen or Donald Trump having a platform to speak. Its assertion that “silence is complicity” sheds light on the compulsion to comment on what DJs do and say: shunning DJs is political.

Avicii, pictured in Avicii: True Stories, a testament to the human frailties of DJs.

Speaking of politics, the underground music scene has made some much-needed steps in the past decade, most notably in its evaluation of female and minority representation. It could be argued that this progress is partly indebted to online call-out culture: waves of music fans whose activism manifests itself through fiercely regulating and recalibrating social behaviour, helping to keep the big names in check. At the same time, there’s another conversation that’s been gaining traction: mental health. Artists like Skepta are vocal about the importance of mental health in an industry with little space for vulnerability: this was heavily underlined by the suicide of 28-year-old EDM superstar Avicii (above) in early 2018. Do these two conversations ever meet, and if not, should they?

A fitting subject for that question is one Jackmaster (real name Jack Revill), who was shamed into inactivity after sexually harassing festival staff under the influence of GHB last year. Just two months prior, Revill’s somewhat vulnerable contribution to the Art of DJing series had gone live on Resident Advisor, and with it his insights on what interviewer Gabriel Szatan worded as “keeping your mind intact, while trying to make everyone else around you lose theirs.” Eight weeks later Jackmaster would issue a public apology for his sexual misconduct, writing that he “[didn’t] recognise the person recounted to [him]” after the incident.

One of the harassed women described how Jackmaster had offered to hand himself in to the police as penance for his actions, and that he was evidently “completely sincere” in his remorse. Beyond that, it appeared that the DJ would be taking steps to seriously change his life. Unplacated, social media carried on as usual. Underneath his apology, comments ranged from emphasising Jackmaster as a sexual predator, to criticising the apology for being too well written; to arguing it wasn’t explicit enough, to demanding apologies for other unrelated incidents; and finally tearing apart other comments which sympathised with the apology.

Assault is assault and should be taken seriously no matter what the mental state of the perpetrator. What lies open to interpretation, however, is the way the music scene recovers from these incidents. In Spinks’ eyes, “we hold people to a higher standard of ethics and morals whilst paradoxically reacting in an immoral way to perceived wrongdoing” and we should remember “we don’t know [the offender’s] exact circumstances or what they may be going through”. On Thursday Jackmaster broke a lengthy silence on Facebook with a reiteration of his apology and more details about the mental state underlying his behaviour. The overwhelming reaction was one of acceptance; for others, moral transgressors have no right to be treated with mercy. Does this absolute outlook towards well-known DJs contradict the empathic origins of underground dance music culture?

For the Internet-soaked generation, a question like this might seem redundant. Prominent figures mess up and are dissected under a microscope: isn’t that just the way things are? I would suggest in the underground it doesn’t have to be. Voracious news outlets and frenzied knee-jerk reactions make a morsel out of well-known DJs without necessarily tending to the root of the problem, echoing the way the mainstream music world combines scandal and celebrity to stimulate fans. That model may be normal for Hollywood, but the underground has historically worked to carve itself a different niche: time and time again it celebrates its deeply heartfelt core. As our music communities become evermore virtual, it would be a disservice to hand them over to that abrasive norm.

It isn’t as if online empathy in the underground music community is a misguided, utopian ideal. I’m reminded of a moment in 2015, when a thousands-strong facebook group asked members to recount their best “wasted DJs” stories. After hundreds of comments and anecdotes ensued someone pointed out that certain DJs (one of them Jackmaster) were being named over and over again and that it felt wrong to publicise their chronic drug abuse for entertainment value. At this point comments on the thread were disabled. Of course this is just one example, but it demonstrates what I hope to be true more generally: that on some level we really do care for the people who play our parties and produce our music, and that we have the capacity to question our treatment of them.

Credible news, or fanning the flames of a witch hunt?

So how did we get to this point? Being the can of worms that it is, it’s hard to pinpoint the specifics of social media behaviour – but there is one person who does it particularly well. The author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson is a writer who has spent decades looking into abuses of power and in this compelling TED Talk he talks about shaming in the Twittersphere. Citing the case of Justine Sacco, a low-profile woman whose life was upended by a badly expressed tweet, Ronson describes how Twitter went from being “powerful and eloquent” to a merciless, “cathartic alternative” to justice; a “mutual approval machine”. For most of us, this isn’t groundbreaking news.

The persuasive element in Ronson’s talk is the way he talks about compassion. In Twitter’s younger days, ordinary people realised that “when powerful people misused their privilege [they] were going to get them … hierarchies were being levelled out.” Now, however, the punishment has become disproportionate, no longer reserved for big companies and politicians. People eagerly await the real-time public ruin of all kinds of individuals until they’ve been “drenched in shame”. After covering the mind-boggling events of Sacco’s case, Ronson observes that “when we watch courtroom dramas we tend to identify with the kind-hearted defence attorney – but give us the power and we become like hanging judges.”

Moreover, Ronson noted, we “want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine… [they become] mangled” and people who bear the brunt of these onslaughts often end up with depression, insomnia and suicidal thoughts. Avicii’s suicide reminds us that artists aren’t any less vulnerable to these kinds of mental health issues, but at the moment it isn’t our instinct to think that way. Rather, scandals kickstart a race to declare oneself in the ‘right’ camp and while some of these comments might be justified, others go much, much further than that. Echoing Spinks’ comment above, Ronson outlines the paradox that “our desire to be seen to be compassionate is what led us to commit this profoundly uncompassionate act”.

The question of immorality is too complex to be answered by any single article. But it’s also probably not to be found in the total ostracisation and online abuse of prominent DJs. We boot DJs out the figurative club in order to protect the social group, but liquify concerns for the mental health of the individual.

Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

When asked about what might be done to remedy that inclination to erasure, Spinks encourages less mob mentality and more tolerance: “I think people generally should follow their own paths of discovery and not get caught up in the latest stories or gossip in the scene. We’re all flawed people, and in a creative scene even more so!” This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t care about important incidents, and public figures should still be held accountable. I think the key word here is getting “caught” – we don’t have to become mired in the act of trashing someone so hard that we beat them even when they’re down. Within a scene that prides itself for its deep social bonds and history of compassion, maybe we can lead the way for a more meaningful approach.

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